I love a panorama as much as the next digital-camera owner. When standing atop Machu Picchu, or rowing across Lake Louise, why not stare and snap away because it’s all about the view? But when I’m eating, you might as well close the draperies. Sorry, not only does viewing while chewing give multitasking a bad name, but I’ve as much desire to spend an evening with my dinner guests’ heads turned away from the table as I do for Jason Alexander to take over for Hugh Jackman as the next Boy From Oz.
So, lovely as it is to peer east from Asiate, 35 floors above Columbus Circle, at both a crow’s-nest vista of Central Park and the informative yet insistent Biography sign, if that’s all you came for, why not take it all in from the Mandarin Oriental’s handsome lounge next door?
Take this advice. Step away from the window, because what you can’t get there, or anywhere else in town at any altitude, is chef Nori Sugie’s Caesar- salad soup. Okay, how coy does this dish sound? Couldn’t be more precious if served in a Lladró soup tureen. Are you beginning to sense the equivalent of what’s known in burlesque as a “platter line,” the perfect setup to plant one right between the eyes? So here’s my zinger: For another bowl of this pale-as-white-jade, stunning yet baffling elixir, I’d happily sit with my back to Asiate’s window for eternity, because it is slap-happily delicious.
In fact, Sugie’s menu is so filled with eye-widening surprises, Asiate could seat folks on the Time Warner Center’s loading dock and Sugie would still rank as the most exciting new chef in town, delivering an unexpected, shrewdly timed “Can you toques top this?” aimed at the phalanx of formidable competitors about to open on this building’s lower levels.
In a movie house, sure. On a roller coaster, you bet. At the reading of a will, you should be so lucky. But who knew you could be so enjoyably shocked at a dinner table? Are you ready to be repeatedly shaken yet stirred, or did you already know that the smoky aroma of truffle-laced celeriac purée enhances pan-roasted scallops into revealing such pungent nuttiness? Or that coconut and lemongrass veil clams in a faint but bewitching sweetness? Crab salad suddenly catches fire when swiped through pomelo vinaigrette, a terrine of foie gras when married with venison becomes a near-blessed event, and a simply seared char turns bedazzling when squired by pickled vegetables in chili vinaigrette. If any appetizer disappoints, it’s a grilled giant prawn lushly enswirled by pasta in a brandied shellfish sauce. What’s wrong? It’s not an entrée, and you will ache for more.
The main dishes are even more startling. In a room of gleaming, resplendent minimalism, from a menu that stoically reveals no more than it has to, on plates that make Takashimaya’s wares appear gaudy, Sugie’s côte de boeuf with roasted rib-eye and smoked potato, duck confit and seared foie gras floating luxuriantly in Peking-duck broth, and pressed suckling pig with trotter croquette and pig-cheek confit (that one doesn’t sound so precious now, does it?) are so intoxicatingly, belly-slappingly hearty, you’re almost sorry for not savoring them in a saloon. No less vigorous are lobster en cocotte in a bracing citrus-seafood broth, and free-range chicken leg on barley risotto strewn with caramelized cauliflower.
The menu has only one stumble: miso-glazed cod, a dish way too familiar and too firmly linked to Nobu Matsuhisa. Its jarring presence on such a small and otherwise smartly conceived menu also points up a force Asiate currently lacks—one every potentially great chef and restaurant needs—an editor. For all the well-rehearsed polish on display, Asiate does not yet possess a strong enough sensibility outside the kitchen helping to shape the restaurant’s identity, someone who would expunge an uninspired dish, realize the menus are too heavy, wisely veto a gilding of bacon to that otherwise sublime Caesar-salad soup, quickly spot that a waiter insisting on explaining every preparation to a table dying to get back to its conversation is an earnest man overstaying his welcome, and note that constant changes in presentation are sabotaging the interplay of flavors in a sextet of marvelous desserts like passion mango soufflé with sticky-rice ice cream, and apple parfait with cider foam.
Hotel restaurants rarely change for the better. But most hotels aren’t Mandarin Orientals, and Asiate is as close as any new restaurant gets to shooting the moon. All it has to do is trust and hone the stellar talent of its chef, and diners will never have to look out the window to feel as if they’re floating on a cloud.
Come the first warm breeze of spring, La Bottega is likely to become another room with a view—that of well-dressed bedlam—its balcony overflowing with half Eric Goode and Sean MacPherson’s lounge-loving Rolodex and half those who can’t get into Soho House. Normally, such a preordained zoo would be an easy write-off, except that La Bottega, despite its clonish McNally Depot Expo design, is so delightful right now—a warm, almost fuzzy hangout with a gentle spirit that successfully thwarts winter’s chill by producing basic but wide-ranging Italian fare at forgiving post-Christmas prices. What a pleasure to find such bright, appealing plates of golden sardines, garnet-deep tuna on fragrant white beans, crunchy artichokes in white-truffle oil, vigorous rabbit ragù on pappardelle, and spunky salmon tartare with scallions and basil in a space so easy to embrace. In fact, except for the ordinary pizzas, most dishes are at least as satisfying as sweet, juicy chicken cooked under a brick, or lamb shank in white polenta. So, quick, go now. Get a solid foothold, and just maybe, by the time the hordes soon to hover at La Bottega show up, they’ll remain on the outside looking in. Now, that’s a view I’d like to see.